Valle d’Ansanto: located in Rocca San Felice, in Southern Italy still hosts an active sulfurous lake which has been a place of pilgrimage since the 7th century BCE. The Hirpini Peoples, an ancient Samnite tribe who settled the area, are known for their connection to wolf. They were called wolf-men. (Hirpus means wolf in Oscan) and have an origin story of a wolf leading them there.

A sulfurous pool in the Valle d’Ansanto

The source of the lake and smell is a fissure caused by the Solfatara volcano, a dormant volcano near Naples. Valle d’Ansanto is located on the Via Appia. Legend tells of animals being led to the lake and the sulfurous gases from which they would die, making a sacrifice to the Goddess Mefitis who inhabited the area. Humans would also make offerings in exchange for her blessings on their fields, and to solicit information or healing.

Haven’t heard of the ancient Oscan Goddess Mefitis? Read my previous post:
Mefitis: The Oscan Goddess of the Liminal Trance State, Liminal Places and Trance Inducing Vapors

Ansanto is associated with the legendary Albunea from the Virgils’s Epic Poem, The  Aeneid, in which he describes it as a sacred grove with the pools of Albunea and the “Oracle of the Faun.”

In her essay on Mefitis, “The Cult of the Goddess Mefitis in Light of Literary and Epigraphic Sources,” Agata Szylińczuk  states:

“Albunea and Ansanto are described in analogous terms. The two primary elements that characterize both landscapes are dense forest and the sound of flowing water. Both places were used to communicate with the underworld. Both places also crossed paths of different ethnic groups, so they were religious centers used by different communities. . . .  The term spiracula was also used to describe sulphurous fumes in Ansanto and was associated with the earth and access to the afterlife”(112.https://digilib.phil.muni.cz/_flysystem/fedora/pdf/145033.pdf)

The title “Oracle of the Faun” is very compelling. Faun, or Faunus (m) and Fauna (f) are variously depicted as half human, half deer or half human, half goat. Oscan spelling is Fatuai or Fatuveis.

Thalia Took tells us:

“Fauna is an old Roman Goddess of Prophecy and Fruitfulness, with ties to the forest and fields and the animals found there.

Far more is known of Faunus than Fauna; His tales may perhaps shed some light on Her attributes and personality. Faunus was a very popular and ancient God Who protected and watched over livestock and Who haunted fields and the forest. As a prophetic God, He used both dreams and His own disembodied voice to reveal the future, and had a shrine in Tivoli at the grove of Albunea where prophetic dreaming was practiced. Their father was usually said to be the prophetic God Picus; though Their mother is not mentioned, Picus was famous for His devotion to Canens, a forest nymph known for Her beautiful singing voice”(https://www.thaliatookccom/OGOD/fauna.php).

Wooden sculpture of Mefitis from the 5th century BCE

In the History of Archaeology Online, Natasha Sheldon informs that Faunus was a wild god of the forest associated with trees. Sound made by trees was attributed to him. Farmers made sure to get agreement from Faunus before they cleared trees for fields. They made offerings and made sure they were in alignment with Faunus, otherwise they were made sorry.

Many sources state that though many people want to attribute animals to the word  fauna, the root word actually came from Favere: to look favorable upon.

“Faunus was also an oracular deity. Anyone who slept in the woods under the trees could receive a prophetic dream courtesy of the God”(https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/faunas-and-silvanus/)

Here is a clear connection between Mefitis and Oracles and other Oracular deities. This place being called “The Oracle of the Faun” lets us know that this place held the liminal space for oracles and gods alike.

Davide Monaco on his Sanniti website, calls the Valle d’Ansanto “the most celebrated sanctuary of Mefite in ancient times” (http://www.sanniti.info/mefite.html)

Many clay votive offerings of males and females in positions of prayer were unearthed as well as offerings of amber and bronze and gold jewelry. Tall (5 ft)Wooden cult sculptures from 5th century BCE were found there with indentations on their chests mimicking cloaks worn at the time or perhaps cloth cloaks were once draped over them for ceremony. These sculpture and more are housed at the Irpino Museum in Avellino.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2023

Works cited:

Monaco, Davide. Mefitis. (http://www.sanniti.info/mefite.html)

Sheldon, Natasha. Faunus and Silvanus. (https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/faunas-and-silvanus/)

Szylińczuk, Agata. “The cult of the goddess Mefitis in light of literary and epigraphic sources”(https://digilib.phil.muni.cz/_flysystem/fedora/pdf/145033.pdf)

Took, Thalia. Fauna. (https://www.thaliatookccom/OGOD/fauna.php).

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